Monday, January 20, 2020

You're So Fabulously Absolute: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you if you're game. What follows is an excerpt from the spring 2019 issue, a tribute to musician Joe Jackson on the occasion of his fortieth anniversary as a recording artist.

(This is as good a time as any to tell you that I keep a Spotify playlist of the songs I commend in my newsletter. You can access it here:

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I have no illusions about the superficiality of my musical interests when I was a kid. I grew up in a town with a very limited musical palate, with radio stations that focused narrowly on Top 40 and classic rock. I did, however, come into early adolescence at the dawn of MTV, and in those early days of music television the dominant form was the New Wave. I have clear recollections of Elvis Costello asking what's so funny about peace, love, and understanding; I somehow identified with the relational angst of Squeeze as they drank black coffee in bed and reflected on times they were tempted by the fruit of another; and I was regularly cut to the heart by the ferocious melancholy of the great Joe Jackson.

Jackson, in the unforgiving glare of history, is one of the New Wave's lesser lights. There are certainly reasons: He lacked the charm of contemporaries like David Byrne (of Talking Heads) and Sting (of The Police), and while his musicianship is indisputable, his pretentiousness worked at cross purposes with the democratization of music that came with its transition to television. Video did, in fact, kill the radio star, and Joe Jackson is arguably one of its many victims.

This year marks Jackson's fortieth anniversary as a recording artist, and so I was excited to purchase his new record, Fool. The liberation that comes with a marginalization precipitated by pretentiousness is evident in the music Jackson has made in the intervening decades: He's a remarkable pianist and composer, and so his tracks are consistently intricate and interesting, even as they break the reductionist rules of radio-friendliness. The new record kicks off with a decidedly cool track called "Big Black Cloud," reflecting the artist's fundamental cynicism: "Hey, hey, today's another day" is the first line of this first track. The chorus rejects the graces of grammar and punctuation to shout its indictment on life in our age:

NO LUCK NO MONEY NO SEX NO FUN
GET ON THE TREADMILL AND RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN.

Let's be honest: To fully appreciate this record, it helps to have already become a fan of Joe Jackson. You have to accept the worldview that colors his art, and that train left the station in 1979. But I'm absolutely a fan, and so I don't even take it personally when he writes a damning anthem of modern midlife and calls it "Dave":

COULD IT BE THAT
WHILE WE'RE RUSHING ROUND THE WORLD
WE'RE WASTING ALL OUR TIME?

Forty years ago Jackson released the impressive introductory album Look Sharp! featuring tracks like "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "Fools in Love." So cynicism is kind of his thing. Jackson wrote about this record in his memoir A Cure for Gravity (yeah, I read it--bought it off the rack in a resale shop, which made me simultaneously happy for myself and sad for Joe Jackson). Here's what he had to say:

It positively reeks of the year 1978, although it wasn't released until the beginning of 1979. . . . At twenty-three or twenty-four it seems very clever to say that the world is just a bag of woe. By the time you get to, say, forty, you've seen some woe, and it's not so funny anymore.

The album that won me over came out in 1982: Night and Day, featuring three tracks on heavy rotation on MTV in my formative youth: "Breaking Us in Two," about a relationship in the process of falling apart; "Stepping Out," about a relationship on the hunt for a renewed hope in one another; and "Real Men," a confusing song for a twelve-year-old, I freely admit: In it he addresses toxic masculinity and fluid sexuality. I didn't know what to do with the song; I only knew that it made me want to cry a little:

What's a man now, what's a man mean
Is he rough or is he rugged
Is he cultural and clean
Now it's all change, it's got to change more
Cause we think it's getting better
But nobody's really sure

Check out two tracks: One a chart-topper from his glory days, and one a throwback track from today. He's an acquired taste, I freely admit, but maybe you'll acquire it.

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Let me know if you'd like to be signed up to get Middling in your in-box. Thanks for reading!

Monday, January 06, 2020

Simultaneous Gravitas and Lightness of Heart: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you if you're game. What follows is an excerpt from the spring 2019 issue, a tribute to my godmother, who had recently died.

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I grew up in a tradition in which infants are baptized into the Christian faith, with parents designating two people to see to the spiritual nurture of the child into adulthood. For me, one of those two people was Sharon Kobusch. (The other was her first husband, Bob, who died twenty years ago.) I grew up a little resentful of this arrangement, as I was the only kid in my family whose godparents weren't blood relations. Sharon was a dear friend of my parents and a sensible choice, but I was a bit dense and self-involved, and so I occasionally experienced her choice as a personal affront. On the infrequent occasions when Sharon and I crossed paths, I wasn't very friendly or deferential toward her.

In the decades since, I've become a godparent to two of my nieces, and I've come to understand how complicated the role is in the modern age. Officially, godparents commit themselves to help a child learn "to practice the Gospel in personal and social life" and to do so in part by being "a bearer of Christian witness and a guardian over growth in baptismal life." We live in a time, however, when the godparent role is mainly an honorific. Unsolicited spiritual nurture these days is not generally considered especially caring, and positional authority tends to be the weakest kind of authority. And so the role of the godparent is something of an archaism.

Over time, I've come to respect Sharon more and more--her willingness to be the adult in our relationship and to let me be whoever I was becoming at any given moment. With a little critical distance, and in the process of figuring out how I would relate helpfully and meaningfully to the people I have committed to godparent, I've come to see the depth of her spiritual maturity and the grace with which she's dealt with me over the decades.

Sharon died a few months ago, shortly after Thanksgiving, after a brief period of hospice care in her home. I had the opportunity to sit with her briefly over the holiday; I was visiting my parents, and they live a short distance from Sharon as the crow flies. We had a nice chat and I was impressed with Sharon's simultaneous gravitas and lightness of heart as she was coming to terms with the nearness of her death. She gave her final witness to me and I'm grateful for it. God is good, and precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints (Psalm 116:15).

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If you'd like to be added to the distribution for Middling, give me a shout and I'll set you up. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Seeing More Clearly in 2020

This year's reading is from the book of 2 Kings, chapter 6.

The king of Aram, upon discovering that Elisha the prophet of God is anticipating and thwarting all his planned attacks on the Israelites, sends troops to Dothan to capture the prophet.

When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked.

“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

As the enemy came down toward him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, “Strike this army with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness, as Elisha had asked.

Elisha told them, “This is not the road and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will lead you to the man you are looking for.” And he led them to Samaria.

After they entered the city, Elisha said, “LORD, open the eyes of these men so they can see.” Then the LORD opened their eyes and they looked, and there they were, inside Samaria.

When the king of Israel saw them, he asked Elisha, “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?”

“Do not kill them,” he answered. “Would you kill those you have captured with your own sword or bow? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master.” So he prepared a great feast for them, and after they had finished eating and drinking, he sent them away, and they returned to their master. So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory.

At the end of one year and the beginning of the next, it can be helpful to take stock of things, to step back from the day to day and get a fuller sense of where things stand for you.

To do so requires a kind of seeing—not simply seeing by sight but seeing by faith.

In this story we find Elisha leading his servant and his captives into a fuller view of things.

He prays for his servant: “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see,” and the servant suddenly sees armies of angels, guarding them against the real challenges they are facing.

He prays for his captives, whom God has struck blind, after the danger has passed: “Open their eyes, LORD, so that they may see.” And God restores their sight, so that they may learn that they have been taken captive, that their power is no match for the power of God.

They are fed and sent home, and they learn that Almighty God doesn’t wield power capriciously.

And—and this is a pretty funny punchline to the story if you think about it—“the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory.” They saw things as they really are, and they got the message.

To see clearly with the eyes of faith is a liberating experience. No wonder Jesus healed so many blind people; no wonder Jesus castigated the powerful for their spiritual blindness.

When we don’t see clearly, we act out of fear, and we take desperate measures to secure our safety: We fight or take flight.

When we don’t see clearly, we scramble for what we can see, doing violence to one another, seeking others’ harm in service to our own purposes.

When we see clearly with eyes of faith, we can lay those acts of desperation aside.

We can react to stress and foreboding circumstances with a sense of calm, even confidence.

We can call on the power of God and trust his creativity to bring good outcomes to our circumstances.

We can offer our enemies a feast and send them home unharmed.

We can live out our callings unhindered. We can live by faith because we can see by faith.

Monday, December 09, 2019

A Couple of Train Songs: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you if you're game. What follows is an excerpt from the fall 2018 issue.

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Kara’s parents are downsizing, which has meant, for us, a little bit of upsizing. They visited us this fall, bringing gifts, which for me included crates upon crates of records. This well-tended vinyl has become a portal to another time, a time when “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley” was a trailblazing lyric, a time just prior to the time when a lack of personal grooming was an act of virtue signaling. Working my way through these albums has been a tour of mid-century Americana, a regular ole hootenanny, so to speak.

Tucked in amongst the button-downs and khakis are some jazz and blues albums as well—a fair bit of Frank Sinatra, a dash of Ray Charles, a dollop of Dinah Washington. And the 1970s make an appearance as well, with a seemingly endless run of Linda Ronstadt records. It’s been fun to listen to the songs that my parents listened to when they were kids and later young adults. The times were not simpler but the tech sure was, and all the things we take for granted about popular music were still being teased out.

For whatever reason, a couple of train songs have stuck with me. Trains have a mythic quality to them in American culture, but our relationship to trains is different based on where and how we live. Neither of these examples was new to me, but they’ve been fun to rediscover: The legendary quality of the Wabash Cannonball, the legendary nuisance of the MTA.

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Let me know if you'd like to be added to the Middling distribution list. Thanks for reading!